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US notches world's highest incarceration rate

A report highlights extent to which many citizens have served time in prison.

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More than 5.6 million Americans are in prison or have served time there, according to a new report by the Justice Department released Sunday. That's 1 in 37 adults living in the United States, the highest incarceration level in the world.

It's the first time the US government has released estimates of the extent of imprisonment, and the report's statistics have broad implications for everything from state fiscal crises to how other nations view the American experience.

If current trends continue, it means that a black male in the United States would have about a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during his lifetime. For a Hispanic male, it's 1 in 6; for a white male, 1 in 17.

The numbers come after many years of get-tough policies - and years when violent-crime rates have generally fallen. But to some observers, they point to broader failures in US society, particularly in regard to racial minorities and others who are economically disadvantaged.

"These new numbers are shocking enough, but what we don't see are the ripple effects of what they mean: For the generation of black children today, there's almost an inevitable aspect of going to prison," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington. "We have the wealthiest society in human history, and we maintain the highest level of imprisonment. It's striking what that says about our approach to social problems and inequality."

Numbering in the millions

Justice Department analysts say that experts in criminal justice have long known of the stark disparities in prison experience, but they have never been as fully documented. By the end of year 2001, some 1,319,000 adults were confined in state or federal prisons. An estimated 4,299,000 former prisoners are still alive, the new report concludes.

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